Just minutes west of downtown Philadelphia, the University City neighborhood is home to the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and University of the Sciences.
Back in the ’90s, portions of West Philadelphia were facing high crime, unemployment, and building vacancies. But under the leadership of Judith Rodin, then president of University of Pennsylvania and eventual pioneer of the anchor institution movement, the University City District (UCD) was created to help revitalize the West Philadelphia community.
UCD first directed its focus on making the neighborhood clean and safe for residents. “If you don’t have clean and safe, you don’t have anything,” said UCD Executive Director Matt Bergheiser.
Today, UCD employs public safety ambassadors that patrol the neighborhood on foot and bicycle. Working with local police departments, the ambassadors provide escort services to those walking in the neighborhood, deter crime by providing eyes on the street, and even help occasionally jump a car battery.
University City’s population growth has outspaced the city of Philadelphia, and residents’ ages 21-34 have increased 20% since 2000. Commercial vacancy continues to fall while pedestrian traffic is up considerably over past years. Now that UCD is an expert in clean and safe, and the area has dramatically improved, it has been focused on developing new programs such as workforce development and public space beautification. Through UCD’s public space initiatives, people can now enjoy a central area of green space at Clark Park, a new plaza for pedestrians at Woodland Green, and join free yoga classes and circus performances at The Porch.
The University City district is a different place than it was when Rodin launched her plan, and so too is the West Philadelphia community beyond the campuses of the anchor institutions. And UCD is helping make even stronger connections between the extended neighborhood and the anchor institutions through workforce development with the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative. Working with the anchor institutions, UCD has helped reinvent the West Philadelphia area. The progress began with a focus on making the neighborhood clean and safe. From there, a neighborhood has been reborn with diverse businesses, new housing options, and active public spaces.